Ann Catlett: The Compassionate Leader

By Hannah Wente | Photography by Hillary Schave

Ann Catlett does not bask in the limelight. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she’d accept this award. If this was an Oscars speech, she’d thank the board members, volunteers and partners that play critical roles at Solace Friends. She started the nonprofit in 2018 to provide end-of-life care for people who are housing insecure, impoverished or don’t have a place or people to turn to at the end of life.

Catlett began her career as nurse. Years later, she went to medical school and her family moved to Madison in 1993. At the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, she taught about palliative care as a clinical assistant professor. Eventually, she became aware that not all patients had equitable access to palliative care or hospice services.

It reminded her of a time earlier in her career while working as a hospitalist that she discharged a patient to the streets with a new lung cancer diagnosis. It hit her that serious medical diagnoses require a full social support network — something that people in these groups often don’t have. Because of these experiences, she became focused on treating people on the fringes of society with dignity and respect — people who are home-insecure, have mental health issues or have substance abuse disorders.

“Ann is fueled by her awareness of the gaps in our medical system,” writes nominator and Solace board member Rebecka Crandall, “especially how those gaps impact individuals living near or below the poverty line. Ann is fueled by a belief that everyone deserves a good and dignified death.”

Catlett co-founded Madison Area Care for the Homeless (MACH) in 2015. Working closely with MACH allowed her to talk to individuals one-on-one about their fears and expectations of life on the streets after a serious diagnosis like terminal cancer.

One of her patients alluded to killing himself after a terminal diagnosis.

“[Other] people have told me, ‘No one’s going to take care of me.’ And, ‘I’m going to die here on the sidewalk.’”

While at MACH, Catlett also worked with others on the concept of Solace Friends, which would become an official nonprofit in 2018. Now, it’s Catlett’s sole endeavor. This spring, Solace is set to open its first house on Monona Drive, serving up to four individuals at a time with less than six months to live. She hopes that Solace will be a micro-community for people who are unseen by society.

“We talk about love — love in action,” explains Catlett. “We want people who come into our home to feel that.”

Catlett’s advice to other women is to listen to your inner voice and find your people (the ones who share your passion). And of course, share the spotlight.

How do you decompress from work and life?

“ The Midwest Clay Project — I’ve been into pottery for the past year. I get into a flow state and I can’t think of anything else. I was telling a friend at the studio, ‘If I’m here — it’s because I’m really busy. I have to go there to clear my head.’”


Read more about the 2023 Women to Watch here.

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